Ontario Firm Gives NASA Helping Arm
BRAMPTON, ONTARIO — FROM the moment the space shuttle Endeavour soared into orbit last week until today when it is expected to land, Sam Higson has had his beeper by his side 24-hours a day, waiting for the call that never comes.
Mr. Higson is Canada's aerospace equivalent of the lonely Maytag repairman - the guy in charge of troubleshooting the long, white, robotic ``Canadarm'' that has flown virtually flawlessly on all its 33 space shuttle missions. This time around the Canadarm got a muscular workout as astronauts used the long flexible boom nearly continuously as a mobile perch from which to work on the Hubble telescope.
But despite what technicians describe as its most intensive workout ever, the Canadarm's complex combination of precision gearing and controlling software and electronics performed flawlessly. So much for troubleshooting, says Higson, who adds a little ruefully that he slept soundly during the mission. No beepers going off, no snags to unravel.
That is not to say he is not prepared. Higson oversees a team of nearly a dozen engineers and scientists, who monitor the arm for the company that created it more than a decade ago, SPAR Aerospace Limited of Brampton, Ontario.
Widely considered Canada's leading aerospace company, SPAR has grown from $138 million in sales in 1982 to $484 million last year. The company has been around since 1967, a spinoff of de Havilland Aircraft of Canada.
SPAR found a key niche in 1981 when it delivered the first of five Canadarms to NASA. That $100 million appendage was donated by the Canadian government. NASA has since acquired four arms, though one was lost along with the space shuttle Challenger. Revenues from the sale and maintenance of the arms has been $400 million over the past decade.
For SPAR and Canada, the smoothly operating remote arm has become a symbol of Canadian technological capability, as well as a foot in the door for future contracts with NASA. The company is already under contract to develop a much more powerful and complex robotic arm that astronauts will use heavily in assembling the international space station.
ABOUT one-third of SPAR's nearly half billion in sales can be attributed to work on the space station robot and maintenance contracts on the shuttle arms, company officials say. But even though space robotics gave SPAR its excellent reputation and still brings in the lion's share of revenues, analysts say the company's future growth lies in digital compression and other satellite communications technologies the company is developing.
``They're a strong company,'' says one brokerage analysts, who asked not to be named. ``The only problems from an investment point of view is that the space station is still subject to congressional downsizing and their satellite business is waning.''
Recognizing those challenges, company officials say they are transforming SPAR from a company with expertise in space, robotics, communications, remote sensing, electro-optics, and aviation into a ``total systems solution'' company with an expertise in software to provide totally integrated satellite based communications and information systems.
Despite the emphasis on software, SPAR is moving rapidly to capitalize on its expertise in designing robot arms that can survive the harsh environment of space - to those that can weather harsh earth environments.
``We're developing systems to help clean up radioactive waste sites,'' says Bill Stanbridge, director of programs at the company's Advanced Technology Systems Group. He says SPAR has a new contract with Westinghouse to provide a robot arm that will carry sensors into highly radioactive waste tanks at the Hanford, Wash., facility that previously produced plutonium for nuclear weapons.
``We've got high hopes for the former Soviet Union,'' Mr. Stanbridge says. ``We had people out at Chernobyl not long ago and there are some excellent prospects for us there.''